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The Poor People's Campaign: Building Morality From the Ground Up

A mother's pain, in Washington, D.C., on the first day of action for the Poor People's Campaign. Callie Greer from Selma, Ala., gives her testimony—her cry, as she called it—on losing her daughter to cancer due to a lack of health insurance. (Michael Nigro / Truthdig)

Editor’s note: On May 14, Truthdig was on the ground with correspondents in Washington, D.C., to document the first day of the Poor People’s Campaign. To see Truthdig’s multimedia coverage of the action, click here. For Truthdig photojournalist Michael Nigro’s audio photo essay, click here.

The Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis stood side by side, gowned in religious vestments, on a small stage on the northeast grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The two looked small against the backdrop of the giant, sundae-shaped building. Approximately 500 people were assembled and looked to the clerics, waiting for them to lead a march into the streets and into the arresting hands of the Capitol police.

First, Barber had a message to everyone present. “The march in Birmingham started with 58 people,” he said, his voice resonating like a bow across a bass cello. “But it ended with thousands!”

Five hundred people seems like a small turnout—until you factor in the other gatherings that took place in 39 states nationwide, in solidarity with this one.

So, in fact, thousands of people from local and grass-roots groups across the country have answered Barber and Theoharis’ call for a mass mobilization.

No, this is not the sequel to the Netflix series “Wild Wild Country.” This is not a cult. This is not centered around any particular religion, either.

This is a movement. This is a campaign formed to challenge extremism locally and at the federal level. This is a continuation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work in 1968, reigniting the effort led by civil rights organizations, labor and tenant unions, farmworkers, Native American elders and grass-roots organizers.

This is not a matter of left or right. This is not a matter of Democrat or Republican. This is not a matter of conservative or liberal. This is a matter of right and wrong.

This is the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival.

The organizers’ strategy is to build this movement from the ground up, not from the top down. For six consecutive weeks, activists will engage in nonviolent civil disobedience in more than 30 states and Washington, D.C., demanding new programs to lift up 140 million Americans living in poverty and immediate attention to environmental devastation, systemic racism and the war economy.

With the Democratic Party’s pseudo-resistance movement (resulting in enabled, deregulated banks, passed military spending, expanded surveillance powers, Gina Haspel) and the Republican Party continuing to create systems of death (gutting Medicare/Medicaid, assaulting the environment, creating an unreachable livable wage), the Poor People’s Campaign is looking to redefine America’s distorted moral narrative.

Poverty is violence.

A war economy is immoral.

13.8 million U.S. households cannot afford water.

These were statements on a few of the signs held up during the first action in Washington, D.C., but they also are a reality.

The wolf is at the door for 140 million Americans, and, according to the Poor People’s Campaign’s agenda, “Many Americans appear to have forgotten their own values and become blind to the needs of other human beings, even those they may still hold in their hearts.”

The organizers aim to bring attention to impoverished Americans amid a political leadership riven with greed and untethered to morality.

The flip side? The system is working perfectly fine for politicians and their corporate employers. They do not want this nonviolent movement to gain any sort of momentum. The corporate media is complicit in this. Although actions took place all over the country, many media outlets chose not to cover them. In Michigan and Tennessee, when activists sat down in the streets, law enforcement refused to make arrests, defusing some of the media attention.

Stay tuned.

Good is a powerful force.

The theme for Week 2 is “Linking Systemic Racism and Poverty: Voting Rights, Ending Mass Incarceration, Justice for Immigrants and Indigenous Communities, and Ending Islamophobia.”

Truthdig has launched a reader-funded project—its first ever—to document the Poor People’s Campaign. Please help us by making a donation.

Michael Nigro
Contributor
Michael Nigro is a leading photojournalist for Truthdig, known for his reporting from deep within major events. He was “on the ground” for the website at the infamous protest in Charlottesville, Va., when…
Michael Nigro

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